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Davidson Ready for Its Close-Up as ‘American Animals’ Opens Nationwide

Actors outside of Chambers Building
Actors walk towards Chambers building during filming.

"American Animals," a film that was shot largely on the campus of Davidson College in March 2017, opens across the United States this weekend.

The film tells the true (and truly hare-brained) story of a 2004 rare-book heist at Transylvania University's campus library. In the film, Chambers Building stands in for the exterior of the "Transy" library, while interior shots were staged in E.H. Little Library. The library's Davidsoniana Room is central to the film as it plays the home of John James Audubon's "Birds of America," said to be the most valuable book in the world.

(Get a behind-the-scenes look at the shoot.)

During pre-production, director Bart Layton and his staff scoured the southeast for a college campus that met his vision. Davidson was an easy choice.

"When we arrived, I was like, ‘Wow, this is it, isn't it?' It was just a beautiful campus.

"In heist movies, the target of the heist has to be worthy of all the planning that goes into a robbery," he said. "It has to feel visually cinematic. Things like the columns and the steps up to Chambers gave us exactly what we were looking for."

Of course, Davidson had more to offer than just a pretty backdrop. During the two-week shoot that overlapped 2017 spring break, more than 50 Davidson students interned, shadowed staff on the set or appeared as extras.

Bart Layton
'American Animals' Director Bart Layton

"The production offered incredible opportunities for our students and that was so important," said Auxiliary Services Director Richard Terry, who helped negotiate and execute the shoot. "The whole venture would not have happened without the opportunity for our students to be involved. That was really the secret ingredient that made this work for us."

"American Animals" premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and was quickly picked up for distribution.

However, Davidson students, faculty and staff got an early look at the film.

In April, director Bart Layton brought a finished cut back to Davidson for a special screening at Old Town Cinemas. Hundreds of filmgoers packed the theater, filling all four screening rooms to capacity. Layton personally introduced the film in each theater and stuck around for an hour afterward, fielding questions from audience members.

"If we hadn't found somewhere as perfect as Davidson," Layton said, "we wouldn't have been able to make this film. My gratitude is truly heartfelt."

Neil Lerner, Wall Professor of Music, was in the audience that night with a unique perspective on the film. Lerner earned his bachelor's degree at Transylvania University and has taught at Davidson for more than 20 years.

"I found the film to be full of unexpectedly moving, beautiful, and sometimes troubling moments in the way it shone a light on not only a bizarre incident from my alma mater's recent history, but also on the state of our society's ambitions and malaise in the early 21st century," he said. "I didn't just attend Transy for four years; I also grew up in that city (Lexington, KY), and the kinds of people and their broken dreams that the film depicts rang a little too true for my comfort."

Since the April screening, "American Animals" has been picking up steam, enjoying positive reviews from The New Yorker and New York, among dozens of other outlets. It opens on June 1.

Watch the trailer.

Jay Pfeifer
japfeifer@davidson.edu
704-894-2920